Sunday, March 25, 2012

Do you have the stomach for The Hunger Games?

"This isn't going to be one of those torture splatter films?" asked my fella on Friday as I invited him to accompany me to an early showing of The Hunger Games. I assured him it was a 12A rating, but in describing him the bare bones of the plot "It's about this game show where children kill each other", I doubted whether I would ever allow my imaginary 12 year old child or the 12 year old version of myself see such a film.

In the early 1980s, when I was 11, my father took me to "the pictures" to see Conan The Barbarian. It had a 15 rating, and I did not look 11, let alone 15. But my father has a somewhat intimidating and confident personality and so he announced to the ticket lady "This is my son, he's 15 alright?" and we were waved through. I recall nothing in the film which warranted a 15 rating, and when I caught it again a couple of weeks ago on ITV3 or ITV4, the only thing that was scary about it was Grace Jones, and the only thing corrupting about it was Arnold Schwarzenegger's decolletage. Standards of what it is acceptable to expose children to have certainly changed.

In order to get the 12A rating, the child deaths in The Hunger Games are not dwelt on or shown in graphic detail. Many of them happen off-screen - a dull "boom" sound announcing them to the other contestants and us. When they do occur, the camera-work is so quick and jerky that it's almost impossible to make out what's going on. The camera-work is the worst thing about The Hunger Games - it reminds me of the first time I used a video camera on holiday. And when we watched it back, my fella went upstairs and threw up.

But while there isn't any gore in The Hunger Games, it's the ideas themselves which should have earned it a higher age rating. Not only is this a contest where children have to kill themselves, it's one which is televised for entertainment, and it's part of a punishment inflicted on a once rebellious and now starving populace. The children are selected via lottery, and you can enter multiple times in order to receive food.

I remember the first time I read dystopic fiction - at 15 I read George Orwell's 1984. The book's hopeless ending threw me into a deep depression - around the same time I dyed my hair black - and turned into a proto-emo. I wasn't used to unhappy endings, and had thought that somehow Winston Smith would have grown a pair of biceps, got hold of broadsword and hacked Big Brother into bits, Arnie-style. But instead, after being captured, tortured with rats, screaming "Do it to Julia", and then mentally destroyed, the book ends with Big Brother triumphant. Forever.

The Hunger Games is one of a trilogy, and it remains to be seen whether in the later books, the silly blue-pompadour wearing elite of The Capital will be overthrown. As we left the cinema, my fella observed that it was a "1970s ending". With messages about the cruelty of reality tv and growing inequality in societies, The Hunger Games is the sort of film which young people should be watching - if only to ensure that they will treat the likes of me more kindly when we're in our 80s and they're in power and can decide what our taxable income should be and whether we get winter fuel allowances...

As of next year, the school-leaving age goes up to 17, then 18 in a couple more years time. We expect children to stay in school for longer and longer, yet we also expect them to grow up much more quickly. I hope they have the stomach for both.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

...although I do like the interweb really

After that last post, where I warned of the dangers of engaging too much in online life, I should really balance things out with a nicer post about it. As someone who enjoys watching old films, particularly low budget bad films, the last few years have seen an embarrassment of riches being placed online and for free. In the past, I would have to go to the now closed Virgin Mega Store in Times Square or Kim's Videos on St Marks Place (also NYC) to and browse their vast collection of cult DVDs (or back in the day, videos) in order to find trash classics like The Baby, She Devils on Wheels or Sticks and Stones. Back in the 1990s I built up a large cupboard of video cassettes, which were stacked on top of each other and which was always at risk of toppling over and crushing me (imagine being trapped under hundreds of cult movie videos forever!) Once DVD took off, I started buying disks online from places like, and storing the disks in wallets (alphabetically because I'm a bit Type A), which saved space, but even so, I can still see myself running out of space eventually.

Fortunately, plenty of the sorts of films that only a very tiny minority of the population of the world would ever seriously consider paying actual money for, are now available on youtube... for free. The picture quality isn't that great, and sometimes you have to watch them in little 10 minute chunks. But there are so many long-lost friends and "new" (I mean old but I've never seen them before) films that I've discovered recently. Here are a few, with my comments. If you ever find yourself with cancelled plans on a Saturday night, or suffering from a debilitating illness which means you can't go out at all, you could do a lot worse.

If you watch any of these films, let me know what you think of them, or feel free to recommend your own youtube grindhouse favourites...

Devil Times Five

A bus full of deranged children from a mental hospital crashes on an isolated road, and the little darlings monsters escape to a winter cabin where they encounter six bickering adults who all act like they're in a bad soap opera. The adults take pity on the children, not realising that this isn't going to turn out well for them. There are some inventive death scenes (if you like that sort of thing), such as putting piranha fish in the bath. One of the men is supposed to be the "looker" so he's naked for some of the film (standards of male beauty weren't as exacting as they are now - he's no Channing Tatum). One of the male children is implied to have gender-dymorphism issues, although this plot doesn't seem to go anywhere, but it's kind of interesting it was there in the first place.

Let's Scare Jessica to Death

The titular Jessica is recovering from mental illness and has retreated to a countryside farmhouse location with her husband and another friend. They're a bit weird (they drive a hearse and like to take rubbings from gravestones) and the locals don't really take to them. But then weird things start to happen, and Jessica can't decide whether she's going mad, or the victim of some sort of wicked conspiracy to make her think she's going mad, or whether she's just dreaming the whole thing, or whether the weird things are actually real. It has one of those 1970s endings and afterwards you'll wonder whether you dreamt the whole thing yourself. Really, with a title like that though, I'd have watched this even if it had been the most rubbish, boring awful film ever made.

Hell Night

Link to full film

A group of teenagers have to spend the night in a spooky old house as part of an initiation into their silly fraternity. But the planned adolescent tricks on them are nothing in comparison to the real psychopath who lives in a series of underground tunnels under the house and doesn't like unwanted guests. The film morphs from an episode of Scooby Doo into something much more disturbing, and it particularly picks up in the last third, with a couple of genuine scares. Linda Blair (from The Exorcist) follows in the footsteps of Jamie Lee Curtis and Sigourney Weaver and gets to play the Final Girl - the slightly asexual one who gets left to last, while the pretty blonde girls are all bumped off first as a punishment for having sex (1980s morality is so complicated). Even though the characters should have been one-dimensional and annoying, there are attempts to make them likeable and rounded (in an early bit Linda's character says she's learned how to fix cars, and it's actually turns out to be relevant to the plot!)

Messiah of Evil

In a very HP Lovecraft-inspired tale, Marianna Hill (one of the weirdo sisters from The Baby) is looking for her missing artist father in a small Californian beach town. Her father's house is full of his disturbing giagantic art installations, making for an interesting film set. She teams up with an odd trio who are implied to be in a threesome relationship (Michael Greer who was more well-known for playing outrageous gay characters in films like Fortune and Men's Eyes, the rather unsubtly named Joy Bang and B Movie stalwart Anitra Ford (from classics like The Big Bird Cage and Invasion of the Bee Girls). But gradually, the heroes are overwhelmed by the zombie-like residents of the town. There are two stand-out scenes in a supermarket and a cinema, which start off normal and gradually descend into horror. A bit like "Jessica", this has a nightmarish quality to it where the characters question what is real.

The House that Screamed

An isloated French boarding school for wayward girls is full of shennanignans, including peeping toms in the shower-room, lesbian initiation games in the cellar and a kind of weekly sex-lottery with the man who delivers the wood. But girls keep "running away", although actually they're not running away at all. While this film was made in 1969, it has more of the feel of a 1979 film, and a lot in common with a later movie Suspira. It's also notable for featuring John Moulder-Brown, who plays the main role in the weird bath-house film Deep End.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The many unintended consequences of technology

Do you feel sorry for Dharun Ravi, who was today found guilty on 15 counts, including bias intimidation? Ravi used his computer webcam to spy on his college room-mate, and boasted about it on his public Twitter account: "Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.” The room-mate, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide a few days later. Ravi could go to prison for up to ten years, where, thanks to a collective American view that prisoners deserve to get raped, he may get first-hand experience of the sorts of activities he was spying on. This very detailed article by the New Yorker reveals a world, which despite my blogging and Facebooking, is alien to me - a world where online interactions appear to have much more value that face-to-face ones, yet at the same time, that value was still hugely under-estimated by those involved.

The two prospective roommates researched each other even before they had met - with Ravi disapproving of Clementi because he might have been poor, and finding out that he was gay through finding out about Clementi's participation in the gay porn forum Justusboys. Even the fact that Clementi had a yahoo email account rather than a gmail account was judged as uncool and therefore unacceptable. Clementi also researched Ravi, and was rather sniffy about Ravi's parents - “sooo Indian first gen americanish,” adding that they “defs owna dunkin”. (Dunkin' Donuts franchise).

By the time they had met, the two room-mates knew enough about each other to form opinions that would be hard to shake. While they had each other's mobile phone numbers (Clementi texted Ravi to ask for access to the room when he was meeting his boyfriend) - face-to-face interaction appears to have been much less frequent or important, the two don't seem to have discussed Clementi's sexuality for example.

Having checked Ravi's Twitter account countless times on the last two days of his life, Clementi went to the George Washington Bridge, downloaded the Facebook app to his phone and then posted a final, awful update "“Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.” Ravi sent him two text messages, trying to apologise, but when he realised what had happened, he tried to alter his earlier, damning Twitter messages. Weirdly, Clementi's body was found by a gay man called Jim Swimm who is a member of Swish, a group dedicated to LGBT rights.

Ravi's trial was based on invasion of privacy, bias indimitation and tampering with evidence rather than driving someone to suicide. He had been previously offered a plea-bargain offer - no jail time, no deportation to India and 600 hours of community service if he pleaded guilty. He refused it, in hindsight a mistake - and perhaps another example of someone who does not really understand the consequences of his decisions.

This is not a pleasant story and the response on internet forums has not been pleasant either - with many people writing "send him back to India". The defence case was that Ravi was an immature 18-year old (a tautology) rather than a homophobic bully. The charge of immaturity isn't really at issue here - I don't think he was particularly immature for 18 - but was just acting like a typical 18 year old - with very little consideration for others or for the consequences of his own actions. When I think of some of the stupid things I did at 18, I still blush with humiliation. But at least when I was 18, the internet was no more than a bunch of computers connecting a handful of universities together, so none of my teenage stupidity and poor decision-making was both recorded for all posterity and shared around the world.

Young people tend to adapt to new technologies very quickly (my 8 year old nephew has recently worked out how to use "series record" and has filled up his mother's DVR with episodes of Loony Tunes and Star Wars Clone Wars). Although familiarity with technology can hide a grasp of its real-world consequences. And I worry that there are so many ways that young people in particular can have their lives ruined by the technology that is so ubiquitous. Another example is the #ToMyUnbornChild Twitter trend. It only takes one person on Twitter to post something dripping in nihilism and hatred like "ToMyUnbornChild i'll kill you if you were gay!", and before long, everyone's doing it. Looking at the faces of those who've posted up such messages, it's a gallery of mostly young people, who, in their own little peer groups will probably gain a measure of validation and hetero-credibility for their take-no-prisoners stance. And if such comments had stayed in their little social circle, probably very little damage would be done to themselves. But now the world is watching... always watching. And such tweets can come back to haunt you any time - raising their ugly heads at your next job application...

Perhaps there will come a tipping point in a few years, when almost everyone has an embarrassing drunk, half-naked picture of themselves online or an offensive tweet - and so it will all get cancelled out and not matter any more. Perhaps I am of the last generation that will ever view privacy as normal and necessary. The consequences of these new technologies are still emerging, and appear to be speeding up rather than slowing down. Future generations may be instinctively more savvy when it comes to what they decide to share. The web still feels like the Wild West in many ways, with very few rules and no sense of global etiquette. An interesting time to be online. But not necessarily a safe time either.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

The strange homosociability of Geordies

Visiting Newcastle at the weekend. I am not a Geordie, although grew up about 30 miles away from Newcastle and the city was my only taste of "urban sophistication" for many years. I am able to bore companions by saying things like "This used to be a Bainbridges/Dillons in the 80s..."

As someone who has lived away from the area though for 20 years, I always return in "ethnographer" mode. A big van had set up shop in the town centre yesterday, as filming for the BBC3 series Snog, Marry, Avoid was taking place. This rather cruel show takes people (usually young women, but sometimes gay men) who wear too much make-up and attempts to give them a "make-under". We get to laugh at them, and they get to be on tv, so theoretically everyone wins.

As we were walking past, a female researcher who had a Standard English accent rushed up to a young girl who was pushing a pram and said "Excuse me, we're filming for Snog, Marry, Avoid and looking for trendy young mums to take part..." I didn't hear how the "trendy young mum" replied, but I suspect she had been chosen because she was one of the over-made up horrors that the program likes to mock.

Despite having grown up there, the north-east of England often feels like another country to me. It is geographically, economically, culturally and socially isolated from the rest of the UK, and as a result has a very strong dialect/accent, along with values that I sometimes find remarkable. Despite it being a cold March day, many of the people I saw over the weekend were not wearing coats, and I felt looked-down-upon for my light jacket (which still left me feeling cold). There is a frankness about Newcastle that can be both disarming and annoying (my parents have it, which about once year leads to unnecessary misunderstandings and hurt feelings). I find it most apparent among women, who, when they are attracted to a man, simply stare at him in a way which I've only directly experienced in cities that have large gay male populations. To be sized up and down and given a cruisy, interested stare that makes you look away and blush by young women, some of them whom I suspect I'm old enough to be their Dad, was both flattering and disturbing. To complain about it not being "ladylike" behaviour would be sexist - and despite the fact that Geordie culture is very gendered in their own ways, there are also aspects of it that are could be seen as empowering for women.

The homosocial aspect of Geordie culture is another thing that I am always struck by. We ate at "Ask" (a respectable mid-market Italian chain restaurant), and were the only same-sex couple in the place. Every other table either contained a male-female couple or a large same-sex group whose behaviour sometimes bordered on what was socially acceptable in terms of rowdiness.

It's very common to see groups of 10-15 men or 10-15 women walking around Newcastle (especially the Bigg Market area), all dressed identically (but no coats). Encountering these groups can be a bit intimidating, and I suspect that it is this "safety in numbers" aspect, like a flock of birds or a shoal of fish, that is one of the motivations for them. I also suspect it might be partially to do with traditions based around working-men's clubs, which have lingered longer in the north-east than other places. And it is also likely to be a function of the Geordie obsession with football - with many of the large male groups on their way to or from the stadium. Stag and hen parties also play a large role (people are big on fancy dress, especially if it is sexually revealing or involves cross-dressing, and the only place where I've seen a similar sexual split is in Blackpool.

The same-sex groupings also help to remove any threat of sexual rivalry or jealously, and I suspect that they enable simple hiearchies to be formed, based around who is the "best" at being a man or a woman. At the restaurant, on a nearby table, it was a single very loud (alpha) male who contributed to 95% of the conversation, with the others simply letting him talk. After they had paid, they got one of the waitresses to take their photograph, and they posed together at the front of the restaurant, with their arms around each other. While I doubt that any of these men were gay, and they'd probably be horrified (to the point of reacting violently) if it was ever suggested, I would bet that the most important relationships in their lives are with other men.
Talking About My Generation

A recent study by Comedy Central looked at Millenials (commonly born between 1982-2000) who are now one of the most important "target demographics" of advertisers. The study found that Millenials tend to find humour to be of central importance to their lives, more so than sports and more so than music, which was much more the provenance of my generation (Generation X). I remember so well the unbearable snobbiness of many of my fellow students, who segregated themselves into little tribes, based on which music they liked. The dance-floors of student nightclubs would be a constantly changing parade of styles as there'd be a "metal" set, followed by some Kylie, followed by some indie, followed by some retro, followed by house music. After each song, everyone who had been dancing would pull a disgusted face at the new song and rush off the dance floor, while others would be pushing past them to take their place. I spent a lot of 1991 unsuccessfully trying to find common ground with the boyfriends of my female housemates, who liked and looked like Nirvana or Faith No More, and naturally disliked me because I didn't.

The fact that this study was conduced by Comedy Central (and found that comedy was important) raises questions about its validity, but it is an attractive theory, and when I listen to popular music these days, it sounds over-processed and based more around what the singers look like, rather than their ability to sing. A lot of it comes across as quite grim, and voices appear robotic as poor singing just gets auto-tuned. There is no "buzz" around the top 40 any more, and Top of the Pops only exists in our collective memory on BBC4. Even the music channels like VH1 and MTV don't play music videos any more. If younger people no longer define themselves primarily by their music tastes it is because the music aimed at them just isn't very good any more. Thank you Simon Cowell et al.

Generation X is seen as a rather dour generation, eschewing hilarity in favour of irony and sarcasm. Our comedic pin-up was Daria...

...and a lot of 1990s humour was based on making fun of earlier generations - particularly the excessses of our parents who came of age in the flamboyant 60s and 70s, and left behind a wealth of loopy fashions for us to mock. The Brady Bunch movie is a good example of this - with the characters of a wholesome 1970s sitcom, transported to the present day (1995 in this case) with hilarious consequences. In this sketch, they perform a musical number called Keep on Moving (which is almost identical to the original episode), the only difference being that comedy comes from the non-plussed reactions from the modern-day audience.

That superior 1990s sneering at primary-colour, monotone, spangly outfits, upbeat happy music, naive, syncronised dance sequences, big hair and "niceness" is contrasted by what the "cool" teeenage audience are wearing: down-beat casual wear, heavily featuring navy blues, greys and blacks, topped off by gelled-down hair cuts that make everyone look like young Republicans. Ironically, of course, those teens now look just as naff to us as the unknowing Bradys (one is in a backwards baseball cap even!)

And it is perhaps no wonder, that all of this sneering led to some of us embracing those despised fashions of yesterday - hence "retro". Although even this (which I loved), became another kind of snobbery.

Keep on Moving...